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The Dormition of the Virgin is the third greatest celebration in Greece (and the Greek Orthodox tradition), after Easter and Christmas. Greeks celebrate it in their usual boisterous way: large family gatherings, public festivals, and loads of lamb eating. Some escape the August heat by spending the day at the beach. No one works, it’s perfect for relaxing, and most people (including me) are on vacation this week.

But what’s the big deal, you may wonder?

The Dormition of the Theotokos

Virgin Mary | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

According to Eastern Orthodox and Catholic tradition, after Mary’s natural death (called the Dormition of the Theotokos, i.e. the falling asleep), she was resurrected on the third day after her repose. At that time, she was taken up, soul and body, into Heaven in anticipation of the general resurrection.

The period between August the 1st and 15th is a fasting one, much like Lent. It culminates in Mary’s resurrection, much like Lent ends up with Easter Sunday.

During the fasting period, a Paracleses (Petition) is read at churches throughout Greece every evening. It concludes with these four hymns, collectively called “Apostles from afar.” They refer to the following tradition: upon the Virgin Mary’s Dormition, clouds of light assembled the twelve Apostles were miraculously from their far-flung missionary activity to be present at the death. This is also the scene commonly depicted in iconography, with the Apostles gathered around the bed.

An alternative video of the same psalms, this one from a woman’s monastery:

When the Apostles met, there was one exception, that of St. Thomas. He was late and met with Mary as she was ascending to Heaven. In order to help him prove their meeting, she handed him her cincture (belt). When he met up with the rest of the Apostles, they all hurried to her tomb, only to find it empty. The cincture was sent in 452 to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), where it was kept in the Church of Our Lady of Blachernae. It is now kept in the Vatopedi Monastery, Mount Athos.